Thursday, December 9, 2010

Gardens of the Moon: Literature in Fantasy Roleplaying

Dungeons and Dragons is in its 4th edition and as far as I'm concerned that game is better than ever. I love the rules, and the wealth of material available. I love the adventure modules and the minis and the computer programs for creating characters. But if I were to air one gripe about the contemporary game, it be the focus on "new-fangled fantasy", the aesthetics of comic books, manga and video games. While these are all well and good, I miss seeing the old literary sources applied to the modern rules.

Archaic Art Forms
The myth and literature that the fantasy genre was built upon is often mentioned but rarely mined for material these days. Back in the old days(!) Dragon Magazine used to run quite a few articles translating various historical and mythical characters and settings into game terms, complete with bibliographies. I don't see much of that in today's D&D blogosphere. One of the great things about D&D is that it provides an excuse for indulging in anachronistic art forms and subject matter. One of my favorites is the epic poem.

As a DM, I am always devising excuses to drop yet another poem by Yeats or Clark Ashton Smith on my unsuspecting players. I love to write introductions to scenes and locations that imitate the purple prose of my favorite fantasy authors, like Smith, Robert E. Howard, and R.R. Eddison. Perhaps a fragment can be used as a riddle, or to illuminate a character, or at least, to fill out a library in far more detail than necessary.

To me, this mixing of storytelling genres is one of the great strengths of the hobby. Adding different types of prose and verse to our improvisational dialogues and descriptions can only add to the depth and atmosphere of a game. Quotations and old literary forms can be a great way to establish a tone of high adventure at the gaming table, and also to recommend further reading to your players!

Sketches from the Old Masters
I propose to follow this post with a series wherein I attempt to rectify the situation. I will publish a series of articles that directly uses source material to inspire adventures, locations, and encounters for D&D games. My sources reflect my own prejudices of course. They will include poems by Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard, and scenes from both authors fiction as well as that of R.R. Eddison's "The Worm Ouroboros". All of these are veterans of the old Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. The reader may wonder at the absence of Lovecraft on my short list, but I think that of all source literature, Lovecraft is perhaps the most fashionable at the moment, and least in need of reintroduction.

Stay tuned for the "Castle of Dreams".